May 30, 2023

Donald Trump’s surge in the polls after his indictment has sidelined some major Republican donors, who are losing confidence that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis or any other GOP hopeful will displace the former president as the party’s leader.

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(Bloomberg) — Donald Trump’s surge in the polls after his indictment has sidelined some major Republican donors, who are losing confidence that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis or any other GOP hopeful will displace the former president as the party’s leader.

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Just a few months ago, DeSantis loomed as a Trumpslayer — a conservative culture-warrior who had nonetheless won over independent voters in his landslide re-election, with none of the baggage of the former president.

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But a series of missteps since the start of the year have given some big donors pause. DeSantis has stumbled with his position on the war in Ukraine, continues to battle the Walt Disney Co. — one of Florida’s most important employers — over his education policies and made a clumsy attack on Trump for allegedly paying hush money to a porn star.

The former president, meanwhile, used his indictment by Manhattan’s Democratic district attorney for the alleged hush-money payments to rally the party around him, juicing both his polls and his fundraising. 

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The Florida governor planned to visit Washington twice this week, once to meet with Republican lawmakers as the Trump campaign continued to line up endorsements from lawmakers and once, to speak at the Heritage Foundation 50th anniversary summit.

DeSantis has yet to officially enter the race, and his political allies have only just begun efforts to undermine Trump’s popularity among Republican voters. Nevertheless, there is a sense among some large GOP donors that the Florida governor has already peaked, and that he doesn’t have whatever it takes to knock off Trump, who has effectively dominated Republican politics for a decade.

“Trump absolutely could win the nomination. That would spell doom for November 2024, though,” said Dan Eberhart, an energy executive and donor who gave Trump $100,000 for his re-election campaign in 2020 but now intends to support DeSantis.

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“Republican donors have been ready for a new party standard bearer for a while now,” he added. “Donors want to win.”

Several other big-money donors said in interviews that they plan to temporarily hold off giving money to GOP candidates until the field narrows, or DeSantis shows he’s more serious about taking on Trump and more dedicated to the retail politics necessary to compete in early-voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Most of the donors interviewed for this story asked not to be identified to avoid damaging relationships with the candidates.

John Catsimatidis, a New York billionaire who has backed Trump in prior races, said he won’t endorse any candidate until at least the Republican primary debate in August. The real estate and grocery store magnate gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to the former president’s 2020 re-election effort.

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He said in an interview that he doesn’t like Trump’s propensity to make enemies, but that DeSantis “has some problems.” 

Struggling Candidate

DeSantis’s staff and allies recognize that he’s struggling, according to people familiar with the matter, and have sought in particular to improve his encounters with ordinary voters. He spent close to an hour working the room at a dinner in New Hampshire on Friday, for example — though he was surrounded by a coterie of aides and security guards who closely monitored his interactions.

Neither Trump or DeSantis are hurting for cash, so far. The pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down, which released ads over the weekend assailing Trump, reported raising $30 million earlier this month. The governor has about $86 million in his Florida campaign account, which could be transferred to a super PAC to support his presidential bid.

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And Trump, who has a talent for attracting both free media coverage and small donations from everyday Republican voters, has never been dependent on the GOP’s wealth class. He raised $15.4 million in the 15 days after news broke of his indictment, according to his campaign.

Early support from wealthy donors boosts candidates in what’s sometimes called the invisible primary — the jockeying among presidential hopefuls to gain the support of the interests, both financial and ideological, that make up the Republican Party. Their support signals which candidates are serious contenders for the nomination.

Roy Bailey, a Texas donor and former national co-chairman of Trump’s presidential campaigns, said he knew several other major donors who would back DeSantis if and when he enters the 2024 race. The Never Back Down PAC arranged for him to speak with Bloomberg News for this story; he declined to say why he no longer supports the former president.

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“I’ve talked with major donors and donors all over the country, and I think they are 90% looking for new leadership, and they are looking toward DeSantis,” Bailey said. “The money is going to fly into DeSantis’s bank account if he gets into the race.”

Some Wall Street donors admire DeSantis’s leadership in Florida and the state’s economy, which boasts a 2.6% unemployment rate, no income tax and heavy migration from places like New York. 

They are less enamored of his culture-war battles with Disney and with Democrats over grade-school curricula and racial and LGBTQ issues, even if those policies appeal to Republican primary voters. But they are most concerned about his slide in primary polling.

Trump led DeSantis 47% to 33% among Republican voters in a poll released March 29 by Quinnipiac University. In November, after his overwhelming re-election as governor, 43% of GOP voters told Quinnipiac that they preferred DeSantis to be the party’s 2024 nominee, compared to 29% for Trump.

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Some donors had hoped the party was ready to move on from the former president. Those same donors are turned off by Trump’s ongoing false claims that his 2020 re-election defeat was fraudulent, as well as his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic that has killed more than 1.1 million Americans.

Unifying the Party

Instead, the former president appears to again be consolidating his support in the party while engaging in no-holds-barred rhetorical attacks on DeSantis, his most credible challenger. Trump mocked DeSantis’s battle with Disney on his Truth Social site on Tuesday, suggesting the company should announce it’s dis-investing in Florida.

One major GOP donor said that he was “flabbergasted” by the GOP field so far and uncommitted to a candidate. He said there’s no way he’d support Trump, that he would take a long time to decide and that he might sit out the primary entirely. 

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But another major donor, who has previously supported Trump but has been undecided so far, said the former president’s indictment may lead to him gaining the donor’s backing. This donor has publicly criticized Trump in recent months but has concluded that GOP voters are so angry about Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s prosecution that even Republicans who aren’t Trump fans will be forced to get behind him.

A third donor said he’s worried the indictment will boost Trump and rally GOP voters around him, snuffing out his opponents’ efforts even before they can emerge.

This donor gives DeSantis high marks for his handling of the pandemic, particularly his early re-opening of the state. The donor said the Florida governor isn’t the best glad-hander, but he’s a smart and capable leader and could prevail over Trump in the primary. 

But he said he’s a little less confident of that since the reaction to the former president’s indictment. 

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